Before the Parade Passes By

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How Bernadette Peters (Possibly) Found Me a Husband

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By Allison Gutknecht

Two things happened on July 15, 2018: Bernadette Peters ended her acclaimed run in Hello, Dolly!, and I officially lost my mind.

It had been nearly 20 years since, as a teenager long-obsessed with musical theatre, I first saw the Tony Award winner on stage, and I imprinted on her talent immediately. My fandom reached its peak in college, when I commandeered Bernadette’s run in Gypsy into a personal pilgrimage involving multiple trips from Penn with enabling companions. When the show closed, I exited the theatre grinning jubilantly, hyper with anticipation for future Broadway-based escapades. In contrast, her last Dolly! dissolved me into a weepy wreck, with curved tracks of eyeliner streaking my cheeks. After countless performances, why had Bernadette’s final day starring as Dolly Levi turned me into a sentimental sap?

The following morning, still teetering on the edge of an inexplicable meltdown, strange coincidences began invading my daily routine. On the street outside my office, I walked by Bernadette’s assistant, who was carting bags of Hello, Dolly! posters. I chalked this sighting up to an oddly timed but fathomable fluke—until the next day, when I reached the intersection and spotted a cast member from the show. As the week progressed and the Bernadette-themed signs persisted—a crossword puzzle clue, an airplane movie option, a newspaper headline, a conference room serenade—I grew increasingly unsettled. Was I seriously being haunted by the ghosts of my existential collapse?

Then, at the same corner, none other than Bernadette herself rode by in a Jeep, those unmistakable red curls the most surefire indicator yet that astrological motions outside my realm of understanding were toying with me.

I solicited input on what the world was attempting to tell me. Everyone had a different theory:

Does it mean you’re supposed to contact Bernadette?

No.

Does it mean you should write a musical?

No.

Does it mean you’re going to die?

Wait, what? Why would that ever—

But then I stopped to reconsider this interpretation. Replaying that afternoon in the Shubert Theatre, I traced the commencement of my dewy-eyed hysteria to the title number—specifically to the portion where Bernadette cried. For an actress renowned for her portrayals of fragile vulnerability, outside of character she was consistently poised and publicly stoic. But when the audience remained in a standing ovation for the entirety of the song, enveloping her in a lifetime’s worth of cascading applause, Bernadette broke. In her unexpected tears, I felt I was witnessing the frailty of our collective mortality, and it rattled my sensitivities.

After hearing about the string of cosmic communications that had since befallen me, a friend suggested I employ the services of her medium. “What would I say?” I scoffed. “‘Are you able to connect with a living person? … No, I can’t talk to her directly. … Why? Oh, it’s Bernadette Peters. I believe she’s sending me messages.’”However, when the Dolly!-related holding pattern endured, plaguing me with repetitious dream sequences and mounting anxiety about my lack of psychic intuition, I eventually found myself in the back room of an East Village occult store, surrounded by the stench of incense, a stack of tarot cards, and the distinct feeling that I was clutching onto the surviving shards of my fracturing psyche.

Things did not get off to a fortuitous start. My mystical consultant launched a failing mission to discern the reason behind my deep dive into the universe’s energies, and Bernadette Peters’s unemployment wasn’t pinging on his intergalactic radar. Wary of spinning endlessly on a paranormal merry-go-round, I summarized recent events, then stared at him expectantly for the appropriate call-to-action. The sage lowered his head in an understanding nod, fanned the cards gracefully before me, and proceeded to insist that each foretold a variation of “be open to new experiences.”

Why, thank you, Miss Cleo, but would you care to be more specific?

As the meeting evolved from “wizardly counsel” to “therapy session,” my sorcerer asked if I was in a relationship. I told him I was not. He asked if I wished to be, and I unleashed my usual line of defense: “I’m an only-child introvert who craves solitude. I’m invested in my career. I’m able to take care of myself and quite content to do so.”

But then, of course, I hadn’t really answered the question.

Because in truth, at 36, a part of me had resigned to follow in the old maid footsteps of my great-aunt, unencumbered by the hassles of a husband’s opinions or a child’s whining, free if untethered, alone but never exceptionally lonely. With every friend’s wedding, I slunk slightly further back in the crowd of would-be bouquet snatchers, obstinately more faithful to my singlehood, as if coupling epitomized weakness or indicated a lack of satisfaction with oneself. I didn’t need to be married; I didn’t require a gold band to legitimize my worth. I was fine.

Wasn’t I?

In the dank humidity of that cramped room, my mind flashed to the image of Bernadette center stage, her voice catching poignantly as she belted, “I love being here and singing this song.” It was the moment during her last Dolly! that emotionally shattered me, which sent me hurtling over the edge of theatrical melancholy. Because for over half my life, Bernadette Peters had been a means toward unforgettable adventures. And as the curtain descended, I observed this omnipotent figure of my childhood getting older, marching forward and dragging my youth along with her. How many more times would she stand before me, lovingly singing her song?

How much longer would I evade the question, would I dodge the honesty of my answer?

“Do you wish to be?” His query lingered in the heavy air between us.

“Yes, but not desperately,” I responded, measured, careful. Protecting myself from admitting, even to this insightful stranger, that I feared wanting something that might never happen.

In a brief eyebrow twitch, he betrayed his skepticism at this vague reply, but further psychiatric prodding lay beyond his duties. Instead, he returned his attention to the cards, asking if I had any other issues to unpack. In a burst of subconscious inspiration, I blurted out, “Should I employ a matchmaker?”

As he shuffled, I explained the origin of this ostensibly random idea: my parents had been invited to a wedding of a couple that met via professional matchmaking. Since then, my mother had broached conversations around the theme, “How about if you consult a matchmaker?”—a proposal that was always greeted with a resounding “No” from her staunchly, stubbornly independent daughter. After all, if modern dating techniques hadn’t worked for me, what made her think this old-fashioned enterprise was the way to go? I was finished searching for a hypothetical future when I could build one on my own. In deciding not to try, I was choosing my fate rather than succumbing to it.

Now, perhaps overcome by the waft of enchanted candle smoke, it abruptly dawned on me: that intrepid busybody, Dolly Levi, was a matchmaker. A marriage broker. “She’s the one the spinsters recommend.”

Could it be that all those signs were pointing me toward the services of a real-life Dolly?

What would the tarot cards reveal?

Naturally, their translator was no fool—he recognized he’d been handed a gold-plated conclusion and ran with my potential enlightenment with every flip from the deck. I was cynical of the reading but a believer in my own analysis, meaning that before long, I found myself seated across from an honest-to-goodness matchmaker, regaling her with the tale of how Bernadette Peters unknowingly sent me into her service.

It is too early to tell if this endeavor will result in an actual husband, but even if it does not, the impact of my post-Hello, Dolly! awakening will not be lessened. When it comes to celebrities we admire, to whom we feel attached over spans of time, when we see them age, we’re forced to allow our own younger selves to fade away—to release our grip on what-should-have-been-by-now in favor of what-still-could-be. That hopeful college student who watched Gypsy end, who rushed toward tossed bridal bouquets and was open to new experiences, continues to reside within this woman set in her ways. And she is not giving up just yet.

“Before the parade passes by,” Dolly Levi sings, “I’ve gotta get in step while there’s still time left.” And so I step off, cautious but revitalized, toward a connection I had stopped attempting to spark, certain only that sometimes, it takes a strike from Bernadette Peters to make me light the match.


Allison Gutknecht C’05 (allisongutknecht.com), is a children’s book author whose latest book, Sing Like Nobody’s Listening, was published in 2018.

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